Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 417 | Abril 2016



The first hundred days of the comedian President

It is looking increasingly likely that the FCN-N, the party of retired military officers that promoted comedian Jimmy Morales’ candidacy, planned all along to convert him into a mere puppet, governing either around him or without him altogether. Even more likely-looking is a US strategy to make Guatemala a “protectorate,” turning it into a more livable country with fewer emigrants heading north.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The first quarter of this year demonstrated that Guatemala’s seeming political erosion is a reality.

The new Congress

The party that won the most congressional seats (45 of the 158) in the September 2015 elections was the Renewed Democratic Liberty Party (LIDER), with the National Unity of Hope (UNE) in second place with 32. Between them they won almost half of the total, although the man who invested the most money in the campaign, LIDER’s presidential candidate, Manuel Baldizón, didn’t even make it to the second round and is now another lost star in the political firmament. Jimmy Morales, the candidate of the National Convergence Front (FCN-Nation), won that round against UNE candidate Sandra Torres.

The Guatemalan electorate’s smartest decision was to have voted in only 11 FCN-N congressional representatives, with only 6.96% voting for them even though 67% of the same electorate chose that party’s presidential candidate in the run-off round. One possible explanation is that people drew a distinction between the FCN-N and Morales, a figure who suggested the emergence of a new way of politicking (“Neither corrupt nor a thief” was his motto during the campaign). But it required a leap of faith to see this popular comedian as separate from the party that promoted his candidacy, founded and led by retired military officers grouped in the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA), and to imagine that he might have any power independent of them.

Between September 2015 and January 2016, UNE’s great negotiating capacity got one of its members, Mario Taracena, elected president of the Congress by forging alliances with legislative benches that had previously separated from it and with other minority benches. Taracena began his mandate by publishing the list of monthly salaries assigned to congressional employees. The figures (between 5,000 and 70,000 quetzals—US$646 and US$9,048, with no few secretaries earning the equivalent of $2,000) caused a wave of indignation among the population, although it was not expressed in the kind of street mobilizations that corruption exposures generated last year.

The distribution of congressional commissions showed that nearly half of LIDER’s 45 representatives had already defected from that party, as had 18 of the 22 representatives elected on the ticket of former President Pérez Molina’s Patriot Party (PP). Of the 51 elected legislators who left those two parties, 21 grouped together in the Reform Movement; others migrated to the self-proclaimed Pro-Progressives, giving them 20 seats; and another 10 created the Citizens’ Alliance. All had left the parties on whose tickets they were elected even before the new Congress was sworn in on January 14.

The plague of defectors continues

The second important step Taracena took was to open the debate on the bill to reform the legislative branch’s own organizational law. The proposed reforms would severely control such defections, prohibit the contracting of relatives, regulate the questioning of executive branch members, avoid the excessive contracting of advisers, prohibit the use of megaphones and banners within the hemicycle and regulate both voluntary retirement and the reclassification of posts.

The bill was approved in both its first and second reading in January by 133 of the 158 representatives, and again in the third and final reading on March 30. The two-month interval in the reform’s approval—a legal subterfuge that seriously eroded Mario Taracena’s image—meant the recent defections would not be touched, thus reducing any expectations of the new Congress acting with fresh honesty and ensuring the influence those defections would continue to have throughout the new President’s term.

During these same two months, the FCN-N bench became the biggest, having “acquired” 23 more members. When Morales was still its candidate, he had criticized the practice of such rampant defections as one of the scourges of the traditional way of engaging in politics and
a particularly notable aspect of the corrupt politics. He promised there would never be defectors from his bench and he would never accept any from other benches.

The growth of his party’s bench precisely due to defections left Morales with egg on his face. The media, which had already had various run-ins with him, demanded an explanation. All he could say was that he would respect the separation and autonomy of powers and wasn’t willing to interfere in Congress’ decisions. FCN-N bench spokesperson Javier Hernández pulled his own chestnuts out of the fire by telling the media that the promise not to admit defectors had been made by the presidential candidate, not those who aspired to form part of his party’s bench. He added that they aren’t respecting that promise for the good of the country, since those who won the elections could govern more effectively with additional members.

Morales’ Vice President, Jafeth Cabrera, told the media that the failure to consult the presidential ticket about the defectors was due to procedural error rather than bad faith. All of this strongly suggests that the FCN-N intends to govern without the President or at least by going around him, while there is a widespread public perception that either the President isn’t being honest in his declarations or is being converted into a mere puppet.

Congress’ other maneuvers

Two other events have increased Congress’ new erosion. One is the effort to water down and delay approval of the reforms to the Electoral and Political Parties Law demanded by last year’s grassroots mobilizations.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s reform proposal was first discussed and trimmed down in the previous legislature then sent to the Constitutional Court for its opinion. The Court ended its work in late January and returned the text to the Congress declaring that it is unconstitutional for the State to use public funds to support the political parties’ independent civic committees. Far from taking on board the work done by the earlier legislature, the new Congress spent February and March trying to modify the proposal to strip it of any reformative value. This maneuver reveals the short-sightedness of a majority of legislators, who will do everything necessary to prevent the law from impeding their own continuation in their seats or any transformation of voting procedures to switch from party slates to individual candidacies.

The other thing that has already eroded

the new Congress is its attempt to change the bill reforming the Judicial and Public Ministry law. In this case, the most dangerous part has been the plan to stop the public prosecutor general from naming his own advisory council and to give the council the power to fire anyone occupying the prosecutor general’s post. Despite the attempts, these plans have come up against so much public opposition from the Justice Defenders’ body that its possibility of triumphing seems to have been blunted.

The comedian President’s debut

The active repudiation of the manifest corruption of the Pérez Molina-Baldetti government by a large majority of the electorate, which led to their resignation, made many voters think the current system is still susceptible to self-reform. With that mindset they elected someone who appeared to be of a totally new mint, who promised a new way of doing politics. Almost two-thirds of the electorate rejected candidates with political expertise, opting instead for a comedian who has entertained Sunday television audiences for years. The first hundred days of Morales’ presidency revealed the error of their judgment.

The major media have their share of responsibility for that misconception, having never reminded the population that it wasn’t the first time Jimmy Morales had ventured into politics. Four years earlier he had run for mayor of Mixco, the country’s second or third largest urban population. Nor did they seriously report that he is no newer to politics than the party that ran him as its candidate, as he had been a secretary general of the FCN-N, founded between 2004 and 2008 by conspicuous retired military officers.

What will move the puppet’s strings?

A very clear example of the major media’s silence is the column on Prensa Libre’s editorial page written by one of its owners, Mario Sandoval Alarcón, who is also the country’s most significant ultra-right politician. Over the course of 2015, Sandoval joined with increasing vehemence those who were denouncing the corruption of Pérez Molina and Baldetti and came out in favor of the mobilizations calling for their resignation.

After Jimmy Morales took the lead in the first round of elections, Sandoval didn’t use his media platform to make any allusion to the military veterans who had put up his candidacy, saying not a word about their gory past and legendary human rights violations. Nor did he comment on the probability of Morales being reduced to nothing more than a puppet on strings if he made it to the presidential office. He certainly didn’t suggest how unlikely it was that a comedian could perform wisely as President of the country. Yet ever since Morales took office, Sandoval has used his column to insist on the repeated mistakes the new President is making, the continuous evidence of his ineptitude for the post and his probable eclipse by the forces running the party that launched his candidacy.

What forces was Sandoval representing through his earlier silence about Jimmy Morales’ inconsistent candidacy? The answer takes us to his alignment with a private enterprise that expected to be able to manage the comedian President at will and now finds itself up against retired officers with the same aspiration.

The “dinosaur” is still out there

In his inaugural speech, Morales evoked Augusto Monterroso’s famous short story : “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.” For the new President the features of that dinosaur are corruption, the traditional form of doing politics and “the plans manufactured or reheated by those trying to make their living by living off other Guatemalans.” Although these characteristics are real, the dinosaur’s other features—genocide, racism, the impoverishment of 60% of the population, emigration, the military conflict that tore the country apart, among others—have disappeared from Morales’ memory.

To be fair, he did mention features such as climate change, unemployment, poverty and social inequality and linked them to still others: “transnational organized crime, fundamentally drug trafficking; the disproportionate population growth and political instability.” But he relegated to the past the consequences of the armed conflict by saying: “For a long time we have only heard about a Guatemala confronted by a conflict, with problems and divisions. But the Guatemala the world sees now is a Guatemala flowering in the spirit of unity, thanks to God and the arduous work of many national and international actors. After more than three decades of conflicts and confrontations, the peace was signed in 1996.”

That’s how attempts to erase and suppress our memory always begin, trying to divert our eyes from the current evils without taking a deep look at their roots.

A spiral of errors

It’s not surprising that with such a beginning, things have precipitated into a spiral of errors. The first was the President’s naming of Sherry Lucrecia Ordóñez as minister of communications and his refusal to withdraw her even when it was learned she had links with construction companies responsible for state works. The public clamor finally obliged Ordóñez to resign when her name appeared on a list of people in arrears in their tax payments.

The next errors were seen in Morales’ ineptitude in dealing with the media. His first press conference was a disaster due to his refusal to give answers with any content, instead attacking the right that journalists claimed to “follow up” on their questions to dig further into the issues.

His manifest incapacity to put up with the standard bombardment of questions from the journalists showed how ill-prepared he was to switch from the TV studio to the journalistic spotlight, and how unwilling he was to back off in the face of authorities or shut up rather than give weak and imprecise responses.

The third and perhaps worst of his first presidential errors was his evident defenselessness when having to admit that his parliamentary bench was swollen by defectors from other parties and that he hadn’t kept his promise to refuse their entry. Rather than defend the arguments he had used when pledging not to admit them, he accepted what had happened by appealing to the separation of powers, thus showing signs of resigning himself to the fact that it would be the party rather than him marking the lines of government.

In a fourth error, he revealed the tragicomic situation he found himself in thanks to friends of his, the touted donors of nearly US$13 million in medications to palliate the severe public health crisis. It was discovered that approximately half of this “gift”—which experts appraised at less than half that claimed value—were already expired or about to expire.

And finally, his fifth error was the inexactness of his probity declaration. He had stated that the value of his assets upon assuming the presidency totaled 5 million quetzals (under US$646,000), but when he presented his declaration they appeared with a value of almost 8.5 million quetzals ($1 million).

The President’s Cabinet choices

Morales didn’t release the names of the 14 members of his Cabinet until the day he took office. He retained two ministers from Otto Pérez Molina’s Cabinet: Foreign Relations Minister Carlos Raúl Morales and Defense Minister General Williams Alberto Mansilla. As government minister he named Francisco Manuel Rivas Lara, who had worked in the Public Ministry since 2003, most recently as its first under-secretary, which made him a key figure in relations with the US Embassy and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

The other ministers named in economic and social areas are quite lackluster.

The Army’s various currents

The continuation of General Williams Mansilla as defense minister merits underscoring, as he seems to be the leader of the current within the Army that accepts the need for the crimes against humanity committed during the war by officers of all levels to be tried. The capture of retired General Benedicto Lucas García, who is believed to have designed the strategy that gave the Army of Guatemala its military triumph over the URNG, has presumably been an important blow to the other Army current, which doesn’t accept the need for justice on such war crimes.

The unconstitutionality suit against the Reconciliation Law presented to the Constitutionality Court by General Alfredo Sosa Díaz, head of the Chiefs of Staff, very likely came from this other current. It considers the detention and trial of 18 retired chiefs, among them Lucas García, a deadly blow to the prestige of those who won the war without ever letting the numerous and very serious human rights violations give them any pause.

Credible sources say these two Army tendencies are at each other’s throats. The one most likely to come out victorious is the one headed by Mansilla, seemingly the spokesperson for a conception of the Army as a force that is more effective if it is better prepared, more respectful of human rights and less infected by the corruption prevailing in the State. This conception discourages officers who thought of their military career as a trampoline to higher socioeconomic status at whatever cost. It’s not surprising that some have begun asking for early retirement from the Army to explore alternative paths to that objective.

A crucial framework

The appointment of the secretaries, the officials closest to the President, is also important, as is the framework of deputy ministers who along with hundreds of other officials take care of the nuts and bolts of governing. It is within that framework that the day-to-day politics gets played out and if it’s not reformed from top to bottom it’s impossible to imagine an honest government, much less an efficient one. Congress has proposed itself the task of drafting a new civil service law. If it’s to have any success at improving the system, it will have to touch one of the crucial nerves.

Who will head the Superintendence of Tax Administration (SAT), the institution where the corruption plans are designed and the booty divvied up, as in the customs scandal case known as “La Línea,” which led to the resignation, arrest and trial of Pérez Molina, his Vice President Roxana Baldetti and her private secretary Carlos Monzón? The new government doesn’t seem to have any serious plan to redesign and thoroughly reform the SAT.

With the experience gained by his stint in the Finance Ministry (2008-2010) during the government of Álvaro Colom, Juan Alberto Fuentes Knight frequently insists that the tax collection structure should answer to and be directed by the Ministry of Finances, not the presidency as now, which only facilitates the corruption. SAT’s inoperativeness and corruption have prevented the State’s tax burden, i.e. the percentage of the gross domestic product represented by the annual collection of taxes, from ever reaching 10% in Guatemala. That’s one of many failures to implement the Peace Accords, which set the goal of reaching at least 12% by 2000… now 16 years ago.

Progress in the
administration of justice

Compared with four of the other Central American countries, not counting Costa Rica, Guatemala has unquestionably taken the most coherent initial steps toward achieving some of the goals of a good administration of justice, especially if we use as a barometer the decision to judge war crimes and crimes against humanity. In this regard, the trial and sentencing of those directly and immediately responsible for the Dos Erres Massacre in Petén and the trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity against thousands of members of Ixíl indigenous communities in Quiché are particularly notable. Ríos Montt was sentenced to 50 years for genocide and 30 more for crimes against humanity. Although the Constitutionality Court violated due process to annul the sentence, nothing can ever bury the historic and symbolic value of that trial and his conviction.

In addition to these achievements, a court has issued a precautionary sentence against the company that’s exploiting the Puya mine at the entrance to Guatemala’s metropolitan region because it failed to consult the population. Nonetheless, It appears that the State has no intention of using its muscle to see that the sentence is fulfilled.

A first trial for sexual slavery

The first trial on crimes against humanity linked to the sexual slavery of indigenous women has also been notable. It’s the first time in the country that indigenous women have dared to judicially accuse their rapists and also the first time a court has agreed to hear an accusation of this type.

The process is known by the name Sepur Zarco, for the location of the military detachment where these women were forced to suffer violent rape, torture and even murder. After three months of testimonies, the highest-ranking court sentenced Colonel Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón to 120 years in prison for “crimes against the duties of humanity,” specifically for the sexual enslaving of 11 Mayan Q´eqch´I women and for murder. Military Commissioner Heriberto Valdez Asij was sentenced to 30 years in prison for crimes against the duties of humanity and 240 more for murder.

On the docket is also an accusation regarding the forced disappearance of husbands, fathers and brothers from these same communities. For this crime the prosecuting attorneys are asking for even greater punishments.

The revolution of female judges

More than 37,000 messages of support for the valiant accusing lawyers in the Sepur Zarco case have flooded in from different parts of Latin America. The trial was heard by Judge Yassmin Barrios, the same woman who presided over the trial against Ríos Montt. She was accompanied by Judges Patricia Bustamante and Gerbi Sical, the latter a man.

The trials on war crimes and crimes against humanity have involved considerable bravery by those who have handed down these sentences, a number of them women. In addition to Barrios and Bustamante, Judge Claudette Domínguez recently handed over for trial 14 military officers headed by Benedicto Lucas García, accused of tortures, murders and forced disappearances in the Regional Operational Training Commando for the Maintenance of Peace in Military Zone 21 of Cobán, Alta Verapaz. Judge Judith Secaida did the same with 4 officers, headed by General Callejas y Callejas, accused of the kidnapping, forced disappearance and murder of a young man named Molina Theissen.

The bribery charge filed by Judge Claudia Escobar against legislative representative Gudy Rivera, which cost Escobar her position in the Appeals Court, also needs to be remembered, as does the decision of Judge María Cristina Fernández, who refused to authenticate the registration in the name of certain individuals of a farm belonging to a Mayan Q´ueqch´i community, which cost her reelection to her bench. Those applauding these women have called this flowering of justice “the revolution of female judges.” And alongside this praise of women judges they have not forgotten to include the valiant actions of Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez in the prosecution of “La Línea.”

A new Constitutionality Court

An important event in these first hundred days of the Morales government was the election of a new Constitutionality Court. The five institutions with the right to elect the five new magistrates and their respective alternates are the Supreme Court, Congress, the Bar Association, the University of San Carlos and the presidency of the Republic. With one exception, they each elected candidates and presented them publicly. Justice Gloria Porras and her alternate, María de los Ángeles Araujo, were reelected by an overwhelming majority.

President Morales was the only one who didn’t present his candidates publicly. Even though the media and many other entities pushed him to exhibit transparency similar to that of the four other electors, Morales defended the anonymity of his choices, arguing that the regulations do not require them to be made public. The President’s secrecy says quite a bit about his insecurity over decisions and his terror of criticism.

The persistence of
an elitist consciousness

The elitist consciousness of the dominant class has been expressed ever since the 1821 Declaration of Independence, whose first article says that “the Political Chief, without prejudice of what the future congress will determine, orders this to be published in order to prevent any fearsome consequences that would result if proclaimed, instead, by the people.”

That perspective, which separates the “notables” from the people, considering the latter a “danger” that must be kept at bay, is still very much alive in Guatemala today, although many of the old estate owners, cattlemen and indigo traders have long since diversified their interests to become today’s sugar industrialists, import-export merchants, mall developers, bankers and financial exporters of money, whether dry or laundered, to the world’s tax havens.

The dominant class considers the State its private bodyguard, charged with the single mission of protecting its capital wealth and ensuring its growth. The elites believe they owe the State no more tax than is necessary to ensure the defense of their interests. Elitism abhors the evolution of the State, and most particularly the Army.

The predominant groups in this elite caste, which have the heart of big landowners and the head of captains of finance and industry, feel threatened today by the criminal forces of the drugs empire and all the other illegal traffickers aspiring to take over the State. The threat of some and fear of others is crucial to interpreting the current Guatemalan dynamic.

Ambassador Todd Robinson

There is talk today of the “protectorate” that the United States is exercising in Guatemala today through its ambassador, Todd Robinson, with obvious backing by the State Department and support from the cordon of Marines stationed in the Palmerola Base in Honduras, the US Navy ships responsible for security in the Caribbean and Central and South America and US Drug Enforcement Agency agents.

It is known that Robinson has spoken very clearly to Guatemala’s dominant class, trying to get across that they can’t keep on increasing their enormous earnings obtained over the past 60 years without contributing through investments and taxes to a country of natural volcanoes that is also sitting on a volcano of poverty that is pushing people to migrate in search of a more human life.

Robinson has congratulated the recently elected Congress for making a progressive move toward transparency. It is evident that behind this praise, unquestionably dedicated to Congress president Mario Taracena, is also a threat that the Guatemalan parliament needs to increase its legislative effectiveness and clean out the corruption.

Robinson isn’t hiding his efforts to get the next Constitutionality Court to move away from its alliance with the traditional elites and provide the country with the judicial security it has lacked. Several of the new elected justices to that court have access to the ambassador and he’s likely to keep pressure on them and the Supreme Court to try to give Guatemala a certain sense of stability and honesty in the application of justice.

All to protect a border

It is impossible not to perceive that Guatemala is facing a single alternative, based on the US defining the Mexican-Guatemalan border as strategic to the protection of its own national security.

From the US perspective, that border has to stop being a sieve for migrants flowing from the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) toward the United States. To achieve this, Guatemala needs to improve its conditions to become a livable country for the grassroots majorities. That in turn requires ever more effective pressure to reduce the corruption in all state institutions. It also implies increasingly intense pressure to get the elitist dominant class to agree to reduce its profits and contribute much more in the way of taxes to the wellbeing of the impoverished majorities. And last but hardly last, it requires a much more efficacious war on organized crime, which is already highly infiltrated among the new elites who aspire to suckle from the state budget as the past generations have.

Are there armed groups?

Groups are beginning to emerge in Guatemala that have become intolerant of the State’s alliance with the dominant class, which has translated into mining and hydroelectric projects and the expropriation of territories without any prior consultation of the populations inhabiting them.

Some say there are already armed groups operating under the name Peasant Armed Forces (FAC), which are determined not to permit capitalist expropriation of the territories. Others, however, think the FAC is a creation of the alliance between the dominant class and part of the Army.

Navigating with a
telescope and microscope

We have always detested the United States’ intervention in Central America in general and Guatemala in particular. Today, however, the “protectorate” symbolized by Ambassador Robinson, the Marines and the DEA is showing a liberating face and a willingness to pressure for a less corrupt country. In these stormy waters, one must navigate with both a close-up microscope and a long-range telescope to reveal the hidden depths and monumental obstacles, particularly the dominant class, which is only willing to countenance changes that change nothing. They will only bow to profound transformations under the threat of US military might. For its part, the political establishment will only move if the US tightens around its neck a noose whose strands are being woven by the growing number of drug traffickers already extradited to the Unites States.

The true route to a safe port is the resurrection of grassroots mobilization, the taking of the streets by those multitudes that filled them only months ago and are beginning to feel indignant again at Jimmy Morales’ weak and chameleonic government and concerned by the efforts of the retired military in the FCN-N to regain power through this new and fragile administration.

Juan Hernández Pico, sj, is the envío correspondent in Guatemala.

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